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Dragonflies and Damselflies

Being insects, dragonflies and damselflies have an exoskeleton, three pairs of legs, and three body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. Both have large, compound eyes, short, bristle-like antennae, and four long membranous wings.

One of the main differences between the two groups is that dragonflies are much larger, on average, than damselflies, particularly the width of the abdomen. When at rest, they hold their wings out from the body, often at right angles to it.

Damselflies, when at rest, (most species) hold their wings folded together along the length of their abdomen. They have more slim and delicate bodies than dragonflies.

Few animals – humans included – can see as well as odonates. They have specialized compound eyes, and each eye can have up to 30,000 facets. These eyes are so large that they make up the bulk of the head, and each facet serves as a photoreceptor angled in a slightly different direction than the others. The upshot is that dragonflies have extraordinarily acute vision, and can see in nearly every direction simultaneously.

Dragonflies of Winnebago County

Winnebago County has numerous wetland and aquatic ecosystems favored by dragonfly species. Local habitats include lakes and ponds, streams, creeks, and rivers, as well as fens and ephemeral wetlands. These habitats provide components necessary for dragonfly success: water for juvenile development, aquatic food sources for juveniles, and plenty of open areas for foraging adults.  Adults often stake out and vigorously defend territories for foraging and mating territories closer to water.

Juveniles typically hatch in spring from eggs deposited the previous summer while some species overwinter as juveniles for multiple years before emerging as adults. Aquatic juveniles feed on aquatic organisms such as midge and mosquito larvae, thus helping to control our pest populations in a natural and exciting way! The larvae emerge as adults, shedding their exoskeleton and emerging as a fully formed and winged adult. Many of our species only survive as adults for a few weeks while others may survive much longer. There are even species that migrate south for the winter months!

The habitats that support our dragonflies are incredibly important, not just for dragonflies, but also for other species, like frogs, toads and salamanders. Some American Kestrels (bird), which will prey on the larger species of dragonflies, seem to time their migrations to follow swarms of dragonflies migrating south. Dragonflies are truly an integral piece in a much larger ecosystem puzzle. They are voracious underwater predators helping to control midges and mosquitoes, aerial acrobats that help to control our deerfly and mosquito populations, and ever-present companions and guardians on our walks in summer, often keeping pace with us to snatch an unwary deerfly from our hats.

Winnebago County hosts a remarkable diversity of dragonflies. There are darners, spatterdock, shadow, fawn, and common green darners; baskettails and pondhawks;  ruby spots such as the American and smoky ruby spots; meadowhawks such as the whitefaced, ruby, and band-winged meadowhawks; clubtails such as riverine, elusive, and russet-tipped clubtail; spot wing gliders; royal river cruisers; pennants such as the calico; forktails such as the eastern forktail; dot tailed whitefaces; and skimmers such as widow, 12 and 4 spot skimmers.

Damselflies of Chicagoland-Marla Garrison (revised)